James Fields’ murderous outburst in Charlottesville can be located in the long history of organized violence against African Americans to accomplish a straight-forward political goal: the maintenance of white supremacy. He follows in the footsteps of Dylann Roof, the terrorist who massacred nine African Americans in the Charleston Emanuel AME church on June 17, 2015. Fields’ victim was a white woman, Heather Heyer, standing against the white supremacist tide that has it’s most vital roots in the White House and the ruling class.
Trump hesitates; Trump equivocates; and the message is resoundingly clear to its intended reactionary audience: the president has your back.
Then-FBI director James Comey, usually quick on the draw when it comes to labeling acts of violence “terrorism”—after all, he ran an annual $3.3 billion dollar budget to counter terror—hesitated in the case of Dylann Roof. Why? It was “horrific,” he acknowledged, but “terrorism” is “more of a political act and . . . I don’t see it as a political act.” Really? Roof said it was political.
Trump had his own uniquely Trumpian obfuscation: there were terrible acts on “many sides, many sides,” he said, and in the face of a firestorm of rage about his lukewarm response, went before the microphones two days later, and after reading a script placed in front of him by his enablers, returned to authentic Trump, Donald, au natural: They weren’t all Nazis, he explained the next day, and some were just protesting the taking down of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a great American (actually a traitor who led the military effort to secede in order to maintain the institution of slavery and the terrorist subjugation of Black slaves) and what’s next, taking down George Washington, and also, what about the “alt-left?”
James Fields and Dylann Roof saw themselves as political actors, and their actions were calculated and willful. Roof’s “manifesto” is a thoroughly articulated political document, one as filled with apocalyptic fantasies and white supremacist daydreams as you’re likely to find. And Fields has a long history of white supremacist political activity.
The farce of Trump’s and Comey’s ambiguity is telling: it reveals the selective and hypocritical deployment of “terrorist/terrorism” as propaganda by the paid agents of the ruling class. Comey’s FBI and Trump himself have labeled acts of vandalism “terrorism,” including breaking windows, hammering on nuclear silos, disabling tractors in ancient forests or airplanes set to bomb civilians, freeing caged animals, and more. As a founding member of the Weather Underground in 1970 I know from close experience just how sweeping—and sticky—that label can become.
I’m reluctant to use the word at all—it flows so automatically into the rushing propaganda stream unleashed by the so-called war on terror, screaming insistently for a permanent state of war, more US aggression, more assassinations and torture, more ethnically based surveillance and repression, more suspicion and fear, more targeting of Arabs and Muslims. But I’ll make an exception here: James Fields and Dylann Roof are white supremacists, Christians, and terrorists, their actions part of a long legacy of terrorism carried out against captured Africans and later their descendants. The history of organized terror against African Americans begins with the kidnapping of Africans, tortured and transported to the Americas as chattel, none of them willing volunteers on the Middle Passage. This massive crime against humanity was state-sanctioned, legal terror.
Enslaved people ran away and resisted in a thousand ways, and after hundreds of years legal slavery was abolished. A decades-long campaign of terror against free Black people began immediately—pogroms, arson, displacement, false arrests and imprisonment, night riders, and thousands of public-spectacle lynchings. White gangs rampaged on a whim through African American communities in Chicago, St. Louis, Tulsa, Rosewood, and hundreds of other places, and the message was clear: white supremacy would police the racial boundaries and punish all transgressions.
So here we are, and the afterlife of slavery is with us still: housing segregation, unequal schools, a criminal justice system built on the unjust targeting and caging of Black and poor people, the state-sanctioned serial killing of Black youth, dramatic discrepancies in health outcomes, and on and on.
What is to be done?
Build the resistance, go deep, and keep rising up!